Lydia Goehr in Bergen: “Philosophy Meets Music”

The Bergen Network for Women in Philosophy (Bergensnettverket for kvinner i filosofi) hosted the conference “Philosophy Meets Music” from 29th to 30th May 2018. Professor Lydia Goehr from Columbia University was invited as the keynote speaker. The participating audience consisted of philosophers from the University of Bergen and other areas of Norway, composers from the Grieg Academy, and festival audiences and performers from the Bergen International Festival (Festspillene), who collaborated with the conference. The seminar sessions were mainly located in small or normal-sized classrooms, where the dynamics between the speakers and the audiences were non-hierarchical and the discussions not too formal.

I had learned of Lydia Goehr in the fall 2015 during my half-year-residency at Columbia University as a visiting scholar. Goehr’s lectures were very popular, and filled large auditoria both with Goehr’s students and external participants. In spite of the size of the “audience”, Goehr managed to make the lectures personal and create a connection with the students on an individual level. As I followed the lectures, I often thought of Goehr as a musician or a composer as much as a philosopher, in the ways she performed the subject at hand: approaching the subject from several angles, relating it in illustrative ways to today’s world, articulating with a clear voice, and developing the content through an exquisite mastery of timing and rhythm of speech.

Goehr appeared to be a good match with the local ecosystem of Bergen – perhaps due to her anti-idealizing and demystifying attitude to music, which will be discussed below. Bergen, a culturally rich city on the west coast of Norway, could be depicted as cultivating a down-to-earth and egalitarian spirit among the artists and institutions, especially in parts of the professional music life. It seemed as though Goehr naturally and immediately found her place in the city.

In this blog post I will portray some of the central subjects discussed during the conference, concerning specifically the relationship between philosophy and music. These subjects deal with a critical approach to the language employed when philosophers discuss music in the first place. Goehr’s critique of an ahistorical treatment of language in philosophical theory relates to three research projects in Norway, either finished or in progress, which I will mention: Vibeke Andrea Tellmann’s doctoral dissertation Musikalitet i teorien: Om relasjoner mellom musikk og språk (University of Bergen, 2017); Ragnhild Folkestad’s PhD in progress: Musical Understanding, Meaning-relations and the Grammar of Aesthetic Language Games (University of Trondheim); and my own PhD research in progress: Perspectives on the Relationship between Music and Philosophical Writing In the Light of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (Bergen/ University of Helsinki). In this blog post the emphasis will be on Tellmann’s doctoral dissertation, while Folkestad’s approach will be present in the way she introduces Goehr’s text “How to Do More with Words: Two Views of (Musical) Ekphrasis” (2010) at a reading seminar. On my behalf, I will shortly mention the conference presentation of my recently world premiered opera Opera Trailer: Beyoncé and Beyond, which I presented at one of the conference sessions, but I will focus on Goehr’s way of relating it to Sally Potter’s short film Thriller.

In addition, even if not discussed further in this blog post, it ought to be mentioned that Sunniva Thomassen (NMH, Oslo), gave the presentation “Musica poetica – the timbre of Italian poetry in the 16th Century”, exploring thoughts concerning the relationship between poetry and music, using as an example the madrigal Anchor che col partire by de Rore over a poem by Alfonso d’Avalos. Finally, the conference was ended with an open discussion between Goehr and the ensemble Currentes, who had several concerts during Festspillene. The final discussion was lead by Hild Borchgrevink. This was followed up by a conference dinner.

Musical “Ekphrasis”

Philosopher Ragnhild Folkestad opened the reading seminar 30thMay by introducing Goehr’s text “How to Do More with Words. Two Views of (Musical) Ekphrasis” to the audience:

In the essay How to Do More with Words. Two Views on (Musical) Ekphrasis, Goehr puts forward and interesting and perhaps surprising proposal. Against the typical modern conception of music as “tonally moving forms” and an art for the ear and for the ear alone, she suggests that music is just as available for ekphrasis as other kinds of art.

The word “ekphrasis” usually refers to an artwork being expressed verbally, through the act of speaking and describing, or rendering an artwork into words. Music, perhaps along with the formalist ideal stemming from the Romantic era, is often considered not to refer to anything external. Music is sometimes thought of as the highest form of the arts, only expressing spirit, or “will”, in an abstract sense, and thus regarded as non-suitable to a verbal report. However, Goehr suggests that music is also available for “ekphrasis”, on similar terms as poetry or visual arts. Folkestad continues: “This should not be taken to mean that music is exhaustible by verbal report, for nothing really is. As Goehr’s title reveals, it is not about making less out of music, but about making more with words.” Then, what could it mean to make more with words?

Goehr turns back to the ancient practice of “ekphrasis”, meaning the art of making that which is absent present “for the mind’s eye”. “Ekphrasis”, thus, is an “exercise of finding meaning where it is not openly displayed or handed to us on a silver plate”, as Folkestad describes. “Ekphrasis” requires something from the listener. This could also be described as an engagement where one doesn’t only pay attention to that which is easily accessible to the mind.

The interesting aspect of what Goehr is doing in the text, and perhaps as a part of her philosophical project overall, is challenging an ahistorical approach to concepts used when describing music. Goehr does not treat words as referring in simple ways to existing objects or ideas, but looks into their complex histories and rich layers of connotations. Quoting Folkestad: “Goehr, to be sure, does not take our modern conceptions for granted, and she challenges us to see the historical contingencies of our ideas about music. One such idea is the idea of musical ineffability; the idea that the worth of music is inexpressible and too lofty for words.”

The question of why music is given a specific ineffable value, is discussed on several occasions through the conference. Even though expressing art (or life) is not exhaustible to language, there doesn’t appear to be any apparent reason to give music a special status. So, why can’t we speak about music, while we can speak about other things?

Music Is Marvelous but Not Mysterious

Goehr tells the seminar audience of philosophers and musicians that one of her life projects has been bringing music down to the earth, among other things we do, “like playing, like dancing, like having dinner, like having sex.” Goehr states further that it is not easy to keep music on the ground, as music is constantly being idealized and turned into something mystical, something with a “soul” and a higher way of existing than other things in life. In the interview “Music Is Marvelous but Not Mysterious” by Aeon Media Group (2012), Goehr touches on a similar subject. She explains that the mystifying attitude comes out of a tradition of ‘romanticism’ and ‘absolute music’ in the early 19th century. “The philosophy has tried to explain it [the music] and has had enormous difficulties explaining it, precisely because they [the philosophers] stuck it in the place where it is unexplainable.”

What contributes to this issue is the way philosophy of music focuses on the perception of a musical work whenever music is theoretically discussed. To resist the mystification of music, Goehr wishes to look at other, particular circumstances of music. As she portrays in the previously mentioned interview:

If you ask what music is, I will turn the question and say, what are we doing when we engage “music” in a particular way. If you shifted your perspective away from the perceptive point of view […], then you would start to see music as being in the making, it’s being produced. It’s like going to the back of a stage and seeing all the mechanics of how some things are put together. Focusing on the institution reveals all those mechanics, it shows you all the equipment. You have all the conventions of behaviour, the expectations, the habits, you get educated, play instruments, you get taught how to read notation, you learn to move, to dance to music and so on, and you have then all the institutions of concert halls, and orchestras and musicians and critiques.

Goehr speaks eagerly and in a way that suggests that the list could go on indefinitely. “All this is music”, Goehr concludes.

At the conference in Bergen, Goehr adds that it might be partly a “fear” of music, too, that leads to the attempt of “taming” it through idealization: lifting it up to heavens. Perhaps in a similar way as women have been idealized? Goehr suggests a parallel. Women – and in this context especially the stories defined by male libretto writers and composers of operas are discussed – have been placed up on the highest chair and, figuratively, fed with grapes. Through idealization you place something safely at a distance. The discussion of operas, gender roles, and the defining powers, is another ongoing thread through the conference, which I will return to.

Building Theories vs. Performing

One of the reasons for philosophy concerning itself with musical works as research subjects rather than other elements in our social interaction with music, could be its fondness of “objects”. According to Goehr this might be due to the fact that singled-out objects are more easily approachable and better applicable to a purely analytical discourse. At one of the conference sessions Goehr mentions the expression “object culture”, referring to a thinking that prefers to discuss “objects” and “things” rather than “activities”, simultaneously avoiding awareness around the complex webs of meaning that the words themselves carry.

One of the intriguing questions that Goehr raises during the conference – emerging as a side subject rather than a main topic – goes as follows: “When did music become an art for the ears?” In the antiquity you didn’t “play an instrument”, but you used an instrument to perform.You performed on an instrument. When using a wind instrument, for example, you piped. Also, you didn’t have musicians, but music, mousiké, something one participated in. Even though the roots for considering music an “art for the ears” have been planted in several ways through the Western history of music, this approach has probably been greatly forwarded by – and this is my own further thinking on the issue – the “sonification of music” today; our concepts of music have developed hand in hand with modern sound technologies and streaming media.

According to Goehr, philosophy of music has been “shutting up” the musician, the activity of performing. The performing has not fitted into the “object culture” that philosophy cultivates. When you’re performing, you’re not engaged in reflection, but you’re doing something, “changing the world”. This requires a shift in perspective. A central question becomes which position one occupies as a philosopher: the performer (on stage), doing something, “bringing something to the mind’s eye”, or someone observing from the audience. The philosopher has traditionally always placed herself in the audience. Goehr calls this ideological self-defeat. Philosophers are actually also on stage, doing something.

As Folkestad describes in her introduction to Goehr’s text at the reading seminar:

Goehr does with other words wave goodbye to the typical ahistorical commitment of contemporary philosophy, and offers a fresh alternative to the “finding independently necessary and jointly sufficient conditions” -game that is so often rehearsed in modern philosophy.

How, then, do you create a philosophy out of performing?

Goehr shares her experiences about this question: “Through many years I tried to view philosophy as a practice, and promote the idea that from truth and reason we have to return to practice. But in the end this doesn’t offer a way out.” According to Goehr, ‘practice’, too, is already so permeated by theory that you cannot simply appeal to it to test a theory. Much like ‘nature’, we treat it as an external reference point or testing ground. “This, again, creates a bloody mess for us…”, Goehr states with irony in her voice. It is perhaps this honest point of departure – admitting the impossibility of validating one specific philosophical approach once and for all, the impossibility of beginning the thinking from a sedimented method – that lies in the heart of Goehr’s approach, making her philosophical thinking simultaneously intriguing and multi-dimensional.

How to Do More with Words?

In her doctoral dissertation Musicality in theory. On relationships between music and language (2017) Vibeke Tellmann poses the question of why it is so difficult to talk about how we experience music. She presents different approaches to the issue, beginning with a historical view, showing that the situation is contingent, not a factual state of affairs in an essentialist sense. On the first conference day she presented her research, and I quote from her presentation:

First, there might be some historical reasons underlying our lack of words to describe music. These reasons can be traced back to the turn from a mimetic understanding of music’s relationship to language in the Baroque era, to an understanding of music as autonomous, also in relation to language as something extra-musical, in the Romantic era.

Tellmann describes a shift from the Baroque era, when rhetorics was applied as the point of departure to the forming of music, and the relationship was regarded as natural, to the Romantic era, when the relationship between music and language was seen as a problem.

Among several other original texts, Tellmann also explores the essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Essay on the origin of language which treats of melody and musical imitation” (1772) and Herder’s “Essay on the origin of language” (1772), where the expressiveness (passion) of the voice and listening play an important role. This debate about the origin of language occurred in the Berlin Academy of Science from 1710, as a part of the Enlightenment attempt to find naturalistic answers to the questions previously answered by supernatural causes, namely God, as Tellmann describes. A part of the relevance of going back to Herder and Rousseau – and this is how I interpret it – is based on the fact that the detachment of music from language, music gaining its autonomy, occurred historically later, and is thus revealed as historically contingent. In Rousseau’s writing, for instance, the focus is turned to the voice and the expressive axis of language as a point of departure both for music and language, and thus language is not considered an abstract content with a voiced axis added to it. “At first only poetry was spoken; there was no hint of reasoning until much later,” as both Tellmann and I have quoted Rousseau on several occasions.

The link between the question of “musicality in theory” and the question of “how to do more with words” becomes apparent when having a deeper look at what ‘careful listening’ to a text might imply. In the third approach to the question of why it is so difficult to talk about music, in Tellmann’s dissertation, an overall question is whether language itself facilitates more visual metaphors that are less applicable to musical phenomena. An interesting part of Tellmann’s presentation is when she interprets Kant’s conception of a “tone” as he discusses it in the essay “Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie”. In this essay Kant warns about a certain superior tone in the discourse of philosophy. While a normal interpretation of this, as Tellmann puts it, would be to understand “tone” in the sense of a moral description, pointing at philosophers who claim to have insight, to be superior without reason, Tellmann interprets the “tone” as both a descriptive and a performative or experienced phenomenon:

I take tone to be something heard, having what I call a certain audio-acoustic, meaning sensed, materiality. While tone is normally understood to have these features only as musical tones or poetic tones, as an artistic medium, I understand tone to be an essential part of all language, including theoretical language. By listening to the tone of philosophy in this sense, as a musical, experienced, tone, and by confronting Kant’s notion of philosophy’s tone with his own layers of meaning open in the essay. Insisting to take tone literally as a sounding tone might further reveal that Kant’s own discursive claims in the essay. As sounding text, Kant’s essay demonstrates the importance of musicality, also in theory.

This appears as epistemologically highly relevant. How does all this go together with the jargon of theory building in philosophy, words being treated more likely as word-atoms with a supposed abstract content, and as building blocks for abstract representation? When ‘ears’ are used in writing, it appears to lead to greater precision but lesser certainty. This becomes apparent in how Tellmann describes the irony in Kant’s essay:

Insisting to take tone literally as a sounding tone might further reveal that Kant’s own tone in the essay is an ironic one. Irony seems to be an instance of meaning that shows itself only in tone as heard, as experienced. As such Kant’s irony, ironically, threatens to undermine his own discursive claims in the essay. The conflict of tone seems then only to open itself to a listening reader. As sounding text, Kant’s essay demonstrates the importance of musicality, also in theory.

Important aspects of the text are lost, if the irony is not perceived. Thus, the importance of “careful listening to a text”.

Tellmann remains true to her subject concerning musicality in theory also in what she herself is doing in her dissertation. In the preface of her doctoral dissertation she writes as follows (my translation):

An important theoretical and methodological choice I make in my dissertation, is to let the texts that work as primary texts or example texts reflect, or perhaps more correctly resonate, in each other.

Tellmann listens to the resonance of the texts, and in addition, lets them resonate in each other. This creates space for a philosophy that is not solely based on finding the sufficient conditions for a definition, or building a theory, using word-atoms as building blocks for sentences. This leads us to a more complex, sensuous, and multi-dimensional understanding of what it means to “do philosophy”.

Opera, Interpretation, and Social Implications

The issue of “doing” and “interpreting” philosophy links with another subject discussed through the two conference days: interpretation of scenic works, and more specifically, opera. Having a look at this might gather some of the threads from the theoretical discussion. On the first day of the conference, I presented my recently world premiered mini opera Opera Trailer: Beyoncé and Beyond (2017) commissioned by Bergen National Opera and Borealis Festival as a collaboration. Early on during the presentation I announced that the session would be more of a “group therapy session” on my behalf, as I was still sorting out issues concerning the composition process, production process, and the mixed reactions of the audiences and reviewers.

I will not discuss the opera here (you can find more information in Norwegian via this link: You’re Beyoncé, but rather present the connection Goehr made to the film director Sally Potter’s short film Thriller (1979). Potter’s Thriller was only briefly discussed during the conference. Later I studied both the film and the reception of it more carefully. As a result, it became the subject for another seminar: “Musikalsk dekonstruksjon. Feministisk kritikk av Puccinis opera ‘La Bohème’ i Sally Potters film ‘Thriller’” (9.6.2018).

Potter’s Thriller, a deconstruction of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème (1896), shows how focusing on an obvious meaning or content and neglecting the social implications of the materials leads to poorer interpretation. As Goehr describes it, Thriller plays brilliantly on the tendency of saying: “this is what it is really about”, in the ways it deconstructs and re-tells the story of Puccini’s opera. Mimi, the woman who dies of illness in the end, in Thriller becomes her own murder investigatorasking “Why did I have to die?”. At one point she is sitting in a room and reading the writings of Karl Marx, while a meta voice explains: “She was searching for a theory that would explain her life, that would explain her death.” There is no theory about Mimi, no one is speaking and writing theories on her behalf, from her standpoint of the world. This raises the question of definition and power. Who has written the operas? Who has defined the roles of the women? In Puccini’s opera Mimi is presented as an innocent, lovable, and decent young lady without an outstanding personality, perhaps somewhat naïve. In Thriller she asks: “What if I had been made the subject of this scenario?” She also makes the observation that she had to be the victim, not the other female character Musetta, as Musetta was a “bad girl”. The death of Musetta wouldn’t have been a tragedy in the same way. Also, she had to die young, while she was still beautiful. No one would have mourned the death of an old lady.

In a panel discussion at Columbia University (5.10.2017), “‘Feminist to the Core’ offers new strategies for interpreting ‘La Bohème’” (Diovanni, 2018), concerning feminist interpretation of La Bohème, Goehr states that the music in Thriller, referring to Hitchcock’s Psycho, calls to mind the violent murder of Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s film. La Bohème and Psycho are connected by this similar plot element, even though Mimi does not die in the same way. Goehr postulates that Mimi’s death comes to represent a “tiresome string of repetitive deaths of women [in operas].” She also makes an observation about the title: “[T]itling her film Thriller, Potter exposes the horror in Puccini’s opera concealed by its overly sentimental reception, by the repressive thrill of its exceptionally beautiful music.” Thus, Potter’s short film opens up an interpretive space that addresses some of the ambiguities in Puccini’s opera.

This relates to the subject of “ekphrasis”, too, in the sense that in interpreting the opera, expressing it in language, we ought to pay attention not only to that which is “openly displayed or handed to us on a silver plate” (see first chapter). When tracing what Potter’s film Thriller is “saying”, we can neither lean on the content of the text nor the time-based narrative of the film. According to Goehr, Potter seeks to undercut the basic narrative reception of La Boheme. We can’t abstract the content in any satisfying way by saying what the film “is about”.Perhaps the broken form and the ‘frozen pictures’ that put a hold on the narrative of the opera La Bohème, create space for the spectator to investigate the “murder” and ask all the questions together with Mimi? Without speaking explicitly of gender or feminist theory, the short film raises the question about who has had the defining power. Quoting Goehr further on the issue of interpreting this work: “Critique doesn’t conclude with the end of the opera, but must turn to work out the social implications for life beyond art, or beyond the history of a genre.” The film speaks to us through its relationship to a social-historical context.

In an interview about risk-taking (Ginger & Rosa: “Director Sally Potter on Taking Chances”, 2013), Potter explains how she experienced the audience’s response to Thriller. She was totally under the illusion that it would be popular, she tells, and that the unpopularity came as a surprise: “[There was a] sharp difference between what I enjoyed in making…and how it might be received.” This discussion – concerning the misinterpretations, or content-oriented interpretation – comes close to Susan Sontag’s critique in her essay “Against Interpretation” (2001). Sontag describes the Western tradition of interpretation as having its roots in the need to defend and legitimate art by making the art a product of the mind. What is needed, is more attention to the form in art; a descriptive rather than a prescriptive vocabulary. Instead of turning art into “thought”, we should rediscover our senses.

Goehr portrays the expectations of an ordinary audience: “People in general don’t like works that raise questions. They want a conclusion in the end, they want to applaud, and then go home calling the piece a ‘master work’”.

After the Conference

Goehr’s visit in Bergen has had several impacts. First, Goehr was interviewed by Marion Hestholm for a radio program that aired on NRK P2 in December 2018. Later that year, Goehr’s thoughts also contributed to subjects at “Nye stemmer”, a seminar series for female composers. Perhaps the largest impact of Goerh’s visit will be that of inspiration: regarding philosophy not only as a “thinking” but as a “doing”. Goehr demonstrates so well that these axis are interwoven in the first place. To problematize the separation of content and dramaturgical form, and to question philosophy’s way of placing itself in the audience, observing the world on the stage, is epistemologically relevant. It opens the door to finding “musicality in theory.”

Finally, many thanks to Vibeke Andrea Tellmann and Jesse Tomalty for arranging the conference “Philosophy Meets Music”.


Aeon Media Group Ltd. 2012-2018: “Interview with Lydia Goehr: Music is marvelous but not mysterious”, Producer: Kellen Quinn, Interviewer: Nigel Warburton, Editor: Adam D’Arpino; available at: [22.1.2019]

Ahvenniemi, Rebecka: Nye stemmer. [22.1.2019]

Ahvenniemi, Rebecka: Opera Trailer. Beyoncé and Beyond, mini opera commissioned by Bergen National Opera and Borealis Festival, world premiered in Bergen 9.3.2018

Diovanni, Timothy: “’Feminist to the Core’ offers new strategies for interpreting ‘La Bohème’”. Blog post from panel discussion, Columbia University, 5.10.2017, publ. 29.1.2018; available at: [22.1.2019]

Folkestad, Ragnhild: “Introduction Talk: Lydia Goehr and Musical Ekphrasis”, Conference: Philosophy Meets Music, presented in Bergen 30.5.2018

Ginger & Rosa: “Director Sally Potter on Taking Chances”. In: Filmmaker Magazine, interview in Toronto, 2013; available at: [22.1.2019]

Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museu of Musical Works, Oxford University Press, 2007

Goehr, Lydia: “How to Do More with Words. Two Views of (Musical) Ekphrasis”. In: British Journal of Aesthetics, vol 50, nr. 4, October 2010, pp. 389-410

Habbestad, Ida and Ahvenniemi, Rebecka: “You’re Beyoncé!”, Ballade, 2.5.2018; available at:, [22.1.2019]

Herder, Johann Gottfried: “Essay on the Origin of Language”. In: Moran, John H. and Gode, Alexander (ed.): On the Origin of Language, The University of Chicago, 1966 (1781), pp. 85-166

Hestholm, Marion: Interview with Lydia Goehr, NRK P2: Spillerom, 2.12.2018; available at: [22.1.2019]

Kant, Immanuel: “Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie”, Vol. 6. In: Schriften zu Metaphysik und Logik 2, ed. Wilhem Weischedel, pp 377-397. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977

Potter, Sally: Thriller, written, directed, produced, and edited by Sally Potter, 1979

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: “Essay on the Origin of Languages Which Treats of Musical Melody and Imitation”. In: Moran, John H. and Gode, Alexander (ed.): On the Origin of Language, The University of Chicago, 1966 (1781), pp. 1-74

Sontag, Susan: “Against Interpretation”. In: Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 2001, pp. 3-14,

Tellmann, Vibeke Andrea: Musikalitet i teorien. Om relasjoner mellom musikk og språk, Doctoral dissertation, University of Bergen, 2017

Tellmann, Vibeke Andrea: “Musicality in Theory. On Relationships between Music and Language”, presentation, Conference: Philosophy Meets Music, 29.5.2018